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ARCHIVE RAID: Unwrapping the Kitkat - The launch of Ultimate Digital in Grimsby (March 2015)

VISION and bravery at the helm of a pioneering Grimsby printing and packaging business has been praised.

ARCHIVE RAID: Unwrapping the Kitkat - The launch of Ultimate Digital in Grimsby (March 2015)

Ultimate Group’s steadfast belief in a digital future was highlighted by industry giants, as a new era was toasted at the sprawling Europarc site.

Chris Tonge, sales and marketing director, welcomed key clients to the town, as he launched Ultimate Digital, having rebranded from the original Shere Print with the arrival of a UK first in flexographic printing.

He was showcasing the new wider-width facility, building on the original narrower model, first introduced in 2013.

He said: “This is a big day for me. Five years ago I was the person who had the vision to start to get involved in flexible digital print. It hasn’t been an easy journey, with a lot of people and a lot of effort, but it is fantastic to see in that time frame that we are here today, and talking about digital print on flexible packaging being here.

“I believe it will replace all forms of print, but where it is now it needs to go an awful lot faster, and as it does it will start to replace other technologies. It is very much a complementary technology at the moment.”

The only one of its type in the UK is installed in Grimsby, with a further 19 worldwide. HP plans to make that figure 60 by the year end.

“We are at the stage with 20 installations, and HP has been really sensible where they have put them,” said Mr Tonge. “They have put them with printers who understand the market, and are really forward thinking.”

Scaling up to commercial packaging has had many technical challenges to overcome, with speed and quality at the forefront. The past five years has seen Ultimate get to grips with it, and while the ‘traditional’ flexographic business is large, and growing, Mr Tonge is horizon scanning.

“We still see ‘flexo’ as a big part of where we are, but the average run length is going down and down. It was 30,000m, last year it was down to 19,000m and at the end of this year it will be closer to 15,000 sq m.

“As a family business we have spent well in excess of £30 million in the last seven or eight years.”

Next door to the Ultimate Digital base, where Sharp Iris, a creative design company is also based, at the former Department for Work and Pensions call processing centre, is the traditional business, consolidated from several Lincolnshire sites in 2000.

It is home to six wide web flexographic printers, with five eight and 10 colours, together with two laminators. Clients range from Young’s Seafood to Florette salad, with work ongoing on product life extension as well as the look.

A total of 285 people are employed, with 24 million metres of packaging produced a month. More work is coming in – a staggering 3,000 more jobs on top of the 8,000 in 2013 – but at the smaller size, underlining Mr Tonge’s beliefs about a digital future.

Capacity is, however, being further increased by 15 per cent on the flexographic front, and it remains the corner stone of Ultimate Group.

“As a business we have always punched above our weight,” said Mr Tonge. “We were one of the first to deliver HD print, and one of the first companies to start to develop reduced colour pallets. As an independent we have always managed to push the boundaries with what we do.”

In 2013 the business turned over £43 million, with a further £2 million added in 2014.

“Digital was seen as a bit of a challenge,” said Mr Tonge. “Our journey began five years ago. When we installed the system two years ago we were one of the first to provide digital printing on food packaging. The whole thing was done with one eye on what we could do once the wider process was available. We developed the market around that productivity, we understood the technology, got the food accreditation in place and then installed the larger press at the end of last year.

“We are at a really interesting tipping point. With flexible packaging, at least 90 per cent of what we want to do we could in theory do digitally,” said Mr Tonge.

High street retailer Iceland has been a long-term customer of Ultimate. Ian Schofield, own label manager, gave a glowing tribute. He said: “I feel really strong about how much Chris has put into this. He has come on a hell of a journey. He has always been a big partner to us and his vision is amazing. It is a big risk what he is doing, he has put a lot of money in to something he has got no sales for. The sales force is under a lot of pressure and rightly so, but he believes in something; that digital is here to stay, and will take over a lot of things we are doing.

“To be here and to see some of my jobs being printed on it, is quite a proud moment.

“We drive every supplier crazy. We never print the same job twice, efforts are huge, and we put them under massive pressure. That’s where digital has a big part to play because the chaos we are creating ... he is already thinking of the solutions.”

HUGE brands have already seen the benefit of Ultimate Digital’s multi-million pound investments.

Early work included the award-winning Marks and Spencer fruit jellies. Traditional methods would require a minimum run of 60,000 to 70,000 units, but Ultimate could deliver at a run of 5,000 to 10,000, or less.

“It is ideal for a range launch, where you may have 20 different products and you want to see what sells,”said Mr Tonge.

Promotional jobs have also led to large-scale flexographic opportunities too, with Taylors of Harrogate commissioning Ultimate for flask branding as part of a Yorkshire Tea promotion during Le Tour’s 2014 Grand Depart.

“You wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it with flexographic,” Mr Tonge said. “Now we have done a travel pack and two or three other projects for them. It is also a great example where it has led us to quoting on flexographic work as well.”

When it comes to fast moving consumer goods, quality is key.

“From a brand point of view it is very important that it matches what is on the shelf,” he said of the promotional work. On this front, work with Walkers Crisps also came up trumps when it came to the crunch, delivering on a competition for personalised bags.

“Every brand is looking for a two-way communication with the consumer,” he said. “Personalisation, regionalisation – digital gives great possibilities, and you can refresh packaging on a regular basis. It gives a brand a great way to develop a loyalty with customers.”

With possibilities now present, new opportunities emerge.

Mr Tonge said: “The famous Share A Coke campaign only worked because someone decided to break a few brand guidelines. We are working very closely with marketeers, brand owners and product developers, talking about ways we can sensibly use and cleverly use digital print.

“There are all sorts of ideas and all sorts of uses based on small volumes. Let’s share the fun, but let’s do something different with it!”

This article first appeared in March 2015's Business Telegraph across Grimsby and Scunthorpe.

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